By Sidrah Roghay
At the age of 15, Muhammad Asif* has cheated death quite a few times already. Kidnapped from a seminary in Karachi; taken to Quetta; drugged and tortured; forced to don a suicide bombing jacket; but then sent back to Karachi.
Now back with his family, the would-have-been child suicide bomber is ready to share his story.
“It was after Asr. Maulvi sahib asked me to meet him after the prayer,” recalls Asif, who studied at the Tahafeez ul Quran Malikia Madressa in Mangopir, an impoverished neighbourhood in the north of Karachi infested by Islamic militants. “A black car was waiting for me outside. Maulvi sahib instructed me to sit in the car and bring back a parcel. I asked him to come with me but he insisted that I go alone.”
From what he narrates, the cleric was involved in his kidnapping all along. A few hours into the journey, Asif panicked and began to scream. “The men put a handkerchief to my nose and I went to sleep.”
The boy was drugged. When he next opened his eyes, he found himself in a room, tired and groggy. “There were three more boys sleeping in the room; two of my age, one slightly older,” he says.
Asif started screaming. “Two men with long hair and beards appeared,” he recalls. “They asked me to shut up but when I did not, they drugged me again.”
The boy soon lost track of time, sleeping under the influence of drugs most of the time. He was drugged every night, only to be put to sleep when he regained consciousness.
“They would hit me whenever I screamed. One day they said they will break my limbs. Once they even tried to do it with a knife but their mother came inside. She shouted: ‘Hit me if you want but leave the child alone,’” Asif recalls. “She saved me.”
The teenager found out that he was no longer in Karachi, but in Quetta. Then one day, he and the three other boys in the room were forced to put on a suicide jacket. Asif says the day was when elections were being held across the country.
“But the kidnappers’ mother came to my help again. ‘Take me if you want but leave the child alone,’ she pleaded to them, begging them while crying. The men had no other option but to leave me alone.”
Asif never saw the three boys again. A few days later he was brought back to Karachi. “I was taken to the Masjid-e-Tayyab Madressa Nizamia, a seminary at Al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth,” he says. “An armed man always guarded me; even when I went to the bathroom.”
The only time the boy was allowed for himself was a few minutes to say his prayers. This is also when Asif managed to pass on his father’s phone number to some people, who came to the mosque to offer their prayers.
Finally someone contacted his family in Mangopir who came with 15 armed men to get hold of the boy from the seminary. They had to go armed because the police refused to help.
Where are the police?
On June 25, about 50 men gathered outside the Karachi Press Club to protest against the police for refusing to book the three clerics – Qari Abdul Khaliq, Qari Abu Bakr and Hafiz Nazeer – whom the family accused of kidnapping Asif.
Every year at least 10 children are kidnapped from Mangopir, the residents claim. “We were lucky to find our child,” said Asif’s uncle. “Often the parents of seminary students are so poor that they put their children there for the free food and shelter and forget all about them.”
Mangopir SHO Aslam Joya denies the reports of missing children. “This [Asif’s case] was the only one we have registered. There have been no other instances of missing children in the area.”
The police have lodged an FIR (181/2013) and are investigating the crime, he added.
Why the children?
In about 393 suicide bombings across Pakistan since the turn of the millennium, over 5,500 people have lost their lives and more than 14,000 have been injured. The attacks are often carried by trained suicide bombers, mostly young men from poor backgrounds who believe the war in the name of god will take them to paradise.
Zahid Hussain, author and analyst, who has spent time with child suicide bombers, explains children are used in terrorist attacks as they are agile and get past security checks relatively easily. In some instances gangs kidnap children from very impoverished backgrounds and then sell them off to militant organisations.
In November 2012, the Peshawar police also arrested a 13-year-old boy wearing a suicide jacket. After a bomb squad defused the explosives, the child disclosed he had been forced to carry out the attack, claims a recent report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Child (Sparc) titled “The State of the Children of Pakistan 2012”.
When Asif was found, he would go for days without speaking to anyone, even his immediate family members. He was scared of everyone.
Most child suicide bombers suffer immense psychological trauma, experts claim. “The hardened ones stick to their beliefs such as killing Shia community members to be guaranteed a place in heaven,” says Hussain. “We need to rehabilitate them and make them useful citizens.”
Efforts are under way to “de-radicalise” these suicide bombers by the Pakistan Army. Four “de-radicalisation centres” are operational in Swat and FATA, according to the military’s media cell, the Directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations known as the ISPR.
The first such centre “Sabaoon” was established in Swat in 2009 to rehabilitate children aged between nine and 15. The centre has successfully reintegrated 154 juveniles into the society.
For adults aged 16 and above, Mishal was set up in Swat in June 2010; Heila was established in Tank in November 2011; and Naway Sahar was set up in Bajaur in January 2011. These three de-radicalisation centres have benefited 1,224 people.
*Name changed to protect privacy